When I am on assignment to a new island or region, I try my best to visit their very best dive site, the one for which the location is best known. At El Portillo, on the Dominican Republic's Samana Peninsula, I found two. The dive guides at El Portillo have amassed a collection of 18 different dive sites, a combination of 12 shallow 18-60 foot reefs and 6 deep sites, with depths to 140 feet. Diving is widely varied: shallow coral gardens, spur and groove reefs, ledges, coral caves, drift dives, pinnacles and walls. However the two best sites are (you guessed it) an ocean pinnacle and a vertical wall. We showed up at the beachfront dive center early, ready for our dive adventure. The dive staff pulled the boat up to the beach, where we loaded cameras, strobes and dive gear onboard. Five divers from Florida would be joining us on this adventure. With dive guide Alberto pointing the way, we made a one-hour boat trip east along Samana's rugged rocky coastline to a point called Punta Cabron. Towering limestone cliffs plunged straight down into the ocean. The swells were running 4 feet and the water was a cobalt blue. We had planned an ocean pinnacle dive, while the boat drifted above us. It was too deep for anchoring. The formation we were diving is called The Tower. The Tower is an 80-foot diameter rock pinnacle that slants upward from 165 feet to within 15 feet of the surface. It lies in the open Atlantic, directly off Cabo Cabron, the northern-most tip of the Samana Peninsula. The crystal clear visibility (over 200 feet) helps to make this unique formation an awesome dive. The sides of the pinnacle are etched with narrow vertical ridges populated by deep water gorgonian fans, sponges, encrusting corals and a myriad of marine life. You are likely to encounter spider crabs and lobsters tucked into the crevices. Pelagic fish swirl around this stone undersea beacon and reef fish find refuge among the craggy folds of this giant pinnacle. Our guide explained that this site was too deep for anchoring, and that the dive boat would maneuver on the surface above us, following our exhaust bubbles, ready to pick us up when we finished the dive. He cautioned us to stay close to the pinnacle, as it would be more difficult to track us if we swam off into the blue. Once underwater, the scene was still and silent. Visibility was a fantastic 200 feet. From the surface, we could see the entire rock pinnacle looming up from the 165-foot bottom to within 15 feet of the surface. It was a very odd shaped formation, clearly stratified on a vertical slant and looking like a slice chocolate layer cake standing on end. Certain layers of limestone rock were eroded away, making the pinnacle look ribbed. It was the strangest undersea pinnacle I had ever seen. The first species we encountered was a combination of a horse-eye jack paired with a Spanish mackerel. They quickly swam past us and around the corner of the pinnacle, only to reappear on the other side minutes later. We continued to see the odd couple throughout the dive. The next encounter was a pair of trunkfish hovering close to the vertical rock face. They were obviously mated together and foraging for food. As we toured the pinnacle, we spotted a large hogfish, then a pair of queen angelfish, then a black durgeon triggerfish. The vertical faces of the pinnacle were covered with a fascinating array of orange elephant ear sponges, azure vase sponges, tube sponges, encrusting corals and deep sea gorgonian fans. Schools of small fish swirled above us, and larger fish at the edge of visibility silently followed our progress as we circled the pinnacle in a slow spiral ascent. As we neared the surface, I spotted a large hole through the upper part of the pinnacle. Large enough for a diver to swim through, it was shaped like the eye of a needle. Now the fish kept us company, hoping we would not depart their towering stone reef. A school of blue runners circled around the top of the pinnacle, with their metallic bodies flashing colors in the sunlit subsurface. It was a breathtaking experience, much more than I had expected. After the first dive we headed the dive boat around the corner of the headland and slowly motored into a tiny cove between two rocky cliffs. We enjoyed a picnic lunch of sandwiches, fresh fruit and salad and waited for our bodies to decompress. We spent the time swapping stories about what each of us encountered at The Tower. No matter how much you see on a dive, other divers always seem to encounter something that you missed. With our dive computers well into the safe zone for a second dive, we motored out to a dive spot called Punta Tibisi. This dive site is a deep-water vertical wall located at the base of a 100-foot high rocky bluff, where the stone face of the cliff continues into the sea. Below the surface, the cliff forms three distinct limestone terraces (ancient beaches) that end in the sand at 130 feet. The cascading reef profile is covered with sea fans, hard corals and sponges. Pieces of the cliff appear broken off the main face, forming a random pattern of high profile reefs that form ravines and caves worthy of exploration. We spent some time at the 18-foot level, shooting photos of the divers cruising past a line of foamy white surf caused by waves crashing against the cliff. This area was fairly smooth rook with a few stubby sea fans clinging to the crevices. As we went deeper, the wall opened onto a field of swaying soft gorgonians, sea whips and large sea fans. I immediately came upon a beautiful azure tube sponge in the center of a gorgonian fan. Further down the second terrace we encountered all kinds of sponges and soft gorgonian corals. Punta Tibisi is a favorite haunt for all sorts of marine life and we saw plenty; barracudas, sea turtles, Spanish mackerel, jacks, squirrelfish and many other species. The wall was lush, more so than any I had previously experienced, and it was hard to tear myself away from this absolutely perfect world and head for the surface. Our dive boat was waiting nearby, ready to board us and whisk us back to home base. The Tower and Punta Tibisi had indeed lived up to their reputation as the two best dive sites of the Samana Peninsula. For more information e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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